July 2012

The petty politics must stop

The tragic events in the sea between Indonesia and Christmas Island in June highlight the urgent need to work on short-term and longer-term strategies to protect refugees in the Asia-Pacific region, writes Paul Power.

BY Paul Power

With our national leaders divided about how to respond to the small number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, the Federal Government has turned to an Expert Panel to find answers.

The Expert Panel – comprising former Australian Defence Force Chief, Angus Houston, Foundation House Director, Paris Aristotle and former diplomat, Michael L’Estrange – will receive submissions before reporting back to Parliament when it next sits in August.

The tragic events in the sea between Indonesia and Christmas Island last month highlight the urgent need to work on short-term and longer-term strategies to protect refugees in the Asia-Pacific region.

Families throughout the region and in Australia are grieving the loss of so many loved ones who lost their lives because they wanted protection. Other families are living with the great anxiety of not knowing whether or not they have lost relatives at sea.

With Parliament so divided and asylum policies so politicised, it is almost impossible for Australia to find effective responses to what are complex international issues which cannot be solved by Australia alone.

The petty politics must stop and give way to working constructively towards building the regional partnerships necessary to build an effective plan for the Asia-Pacific region to respond concretely to the complexities of refugee protection and movement across borders. Little will change while asylum seekers in the region feel that a boat journey to Australia is their only serious option for genuine protection. A solution to the refugee problem must be a solution for the refugees, not just for those who are embarrassed to see refugees dying in or near Australian waters.

A proper regional refugee protection plan must be based on common standards that ensure that, no matter where asylum seekers are within the Asia-Pacific region, they are treated humanely, have their asylum applications processed fairly, and if found to be a refugee, are provided with a durable solution through resettlement or long-term residency in the country of asylum. Realistically, if poorer regional states are to accept such arrangements, stable and prosperous countries such as Australia will need to play a very substantial role in offering or brokering resettlement from the region.

In 1954, the Menzies Government committed Australia to protecting refugees by acceding to the Refugee Convention. Australia must continue to live up to this long-standing commitment and work towards a regional refugee protection plan in line with the principles set out by the High Court of Australia in August 2011.

The Refugee Council of Australia has been arguing for some years for Australia to engage its Asian neighbours in dialogue on how the region can cooperate in protecting refugees. We welcomed the greater focus on refugee protection as part of Bali Process discussions over the past two years. Unfortunately, we are yet to see a single positive outcome for vulnerable refugees as a result of Bali Process discussions. However, rather than give up, Australia must use the recent tragedies to drive much more focused discussion and action through the Bali Process, or any other suitable forum for dialogue, about how countries can share responsibility to protect the most vulnerable.

Developing an effective regional plan will take time. However, in the short term, there are a series of concrete measures which can be taken. These include:

  • urgent discussions with Indonesia about ways to bolster search and rescue missions;
  • discussions with the UNHCR to improve resources for processing asylum claims in Indonesia and Malaysia and support for refugees living in difficult circumstances in those countries;
  • increasing resources to NGOs in South East Asia and South Asia, working with vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in vital services such as emergency assistance, health and education;
  • working with the UNHCR and other resettlement countries to increase resettlement from the countries in Asia to which refugees flee.

The Refugee Council of Australia welcomes the increased public discussion of the need for Australia to increase its refugee resettlement program. Largely because of the divisive political debate on asylum, Australia has lost sight of its fine tradition in refugee resettlement and the great generosity our nation has shown at particular times over the past 65 years in responding to refugee crises.

In the post-war era, Australia resettled 160,000 refugees in just three years (from 1948 to 1951) at a time when Australia’s population was just 8 million. Three decades ago, in 1980-81, our resettlement program peaked again at 22,000 per year, which in per capita terms equates to 34,000 resettlement places today.

Our past experiences of refugee resettlement have shown that not only is Australia good at responding to people in humanitarian need but that our nation benefits greatly from the contribution made in return by the refugees it receives.

If we are serious about finding ways to alleviating the suffering of refugees and asylum seekers in our region, Australia’s Parliamentarians must work with people beyond the Parliament to find more effective answers than those currently being considered.

Paul Power

Paul Power has been CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia since 2006. Before this, Paul worked in the NGO sector as a media officer, trainer, researcher and manager, after a 12-year career in the newspaper industry as a journalist and editor. Through his NGO work, Paul has been involved with projects in international aid, community development, mental health support, volunteer training, social research and advocacy.

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